The rescue last week of a pair of hypothermic, missing hikers from just below the summit of Algonquin Peak drew national media coverage and countless posts of thanks and appreciation for the rangers and other rescuers on social media.
For the forest rangers, it was the 353rd search-and-rescue operation of the year, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
“We all take it home at night,” District 5 Captain John Streiff said of the stress and anxiety of search operations.
That’s one search, rescue or recovery operation for every day of the year – a massive strain on the 106 forest rangers statewide who are also expected to patrol thousands of miles of trails and dozens of state campgrounds on a mission to protect the state's natural resources and train and educate citizens about wilderness safety.
While the total number of forest rangers hasn't changed since at least 2007, the size of the Adirondack Park, state forests, trail systems and conservation easements have all grown in scope. State officials are working on classifying another 20,000-acre tract of land just south of the High Peaks wilderness and thousands more acres nearby.
Thirty-one seasonal assistant rangers supported the forest rangers in 2007, but those jobs are no longer filled, according to the annual forest ranger report.
In 2007, forest rangers conducted 223 search, rescue or recovery missions. By 2015, that number had climbed to 340 – a 52 percent increase. While rangers spent 10 percent of their time in 2007 on search-and-rescue operations, in 2015 they spent 17 percent of their time on the missions.
Three weeks ago, many of the same rangers who braved the snows of Algonquin this week spent eight days searching in Clinton County for a lost Vermont hunter, Ira Boardman, who was eventually found dead. That search covered over 2,500 acres of land near Boardman’s New York hunting cabin.
“I’ve been a ranger for 21 years ... a much greater percentage of my time now is spent on search and rescue than it was in 1999 or 2002,” said forest ranger Scott vanLaer, who along with longtime Adirondack climber Don Mellor, was first to make contact with the missing hikers on Algonquin.
More hikers, more searches
The increase in search-and-rescue operations – in the High Peaks region alone, they increased by 165 percent between 2007 and 2015 – runs roughly parallel to a big uptick in the number of hikers on trails.
Hikers signing in at the trail register to climb Cascade – one of the most accessible high peaks – more than doubled over the past 10 years. In 2006, just over 16,000 people signed up to hike the mountain, but by 2015, over 33,000 hikers took on the climb, according to DEC data.
Hiking challenges like the longstanding goal of summiting all 46 Adirondack High Peaks, increased marketing campaigns for the Lake Placid area, a deluge of outdoors-focused social media posts and meet-up hiking groups have all contributed to the increase in trail use – and search-and-rescue operations.
As people become more reliant on cellphones – which, while they have apps for maps, compasses and flashlights, also have batteries that run out quickly – many hikers are entering the woods unprepared. The “ultralight” backpacking craze also leads people to attempt difficult winter hikes with little on gear on their back.
And hikers are taking in longer, more ambitious day trips than ever before, vanLaer said.
“We continue to execute successful missions, but we are definitely feeling the uptick of people in the woods,” Streiff said.
With the rangers devoting more time and energy to searches, they are spending less time on the long list of other job duties they have: patrolling thousands of miles of trails, checking on public campgrounds, inspecting state boundary land, and other duties.
Moreover, less ranger time can be spent on education about wilderness safety, which can help prevent the need for search-an-rescue operations in the first place.
“It means the stewardship aspect, the patrol aspect, the public education; it means that is not being done to the level it was done in the past,” vanLaer said. “Because we have to put our resources to health and safety first.”
And the data bare that out. In 2007, forest rangers patrolled more than 3,500 miles of trails in the High Peaks. Last year, rangers patrolled less than 2,200 miles of High Peaks trails. Last year, the rangers made just four patrols of state campgrounds in the High Peaks, compared with 91 patrols in 2007.
While the number for search-and-rescue operations fluctuates from year to year, the trend is clearly upward. The five-year average from 2010 to 2015 was 291 searches each year. The five-year average from 2000 to 2005 was 240 searches each year; from 1991 to 1995, the average was 231 searches each year. Last year was the first year since the rangers started collected annual data -- in the mid-1960s -- that the number of search-and-rescue operations topped 300. They will top 300 again this year.
The rangers have been able to get by so far, calling in backup rangers from other parts of the state, working with state police and relying on trained volunteers. But the math is undeniable: the number of search-and-rescue operations is increasing, while the number of rangers stays the same.
“Up to now, we have managed. We’ve been successful, we bring in other resources, we keep it going,” said Streiff, who oversees the most rangers -- 40 -- of any district captain and coordinates the most search-and-rescue operations.
“When that doesn’t happen, I’m not sure what that answer is.”